Weird things people believe about their local governments

Posted on Tuesday November 06, 2018 at 07:16PM

When I was doing research for my applied research paper (ARP) I researched the history of two communities, Manor, and Carlyle. I wanted to see why they developed so differently, but in doing so, learned so much more. People have always, always complained that their taxes were way too high. Always. In fact, several beliefs about local government seem to have emerged that I think contributes to the over all us and them attitudes that plague the municipal governments, and the main one is the citizenry do not see a value for the taxes they pay. Here are some others.

1. Everyone on Council is there for their own agendas (and that's a bad thing). Nah. If that ever was the case,any person on council would be able to tell you that in order to promote your own agenda, you have to have agreement from others. In my opinion Council has one of the toughest jobs ever, especially now.  In fact for every member of Council who may have benefited from their position there are several more who have lost business when people in the community did not agree with a Council decision. The smaller the community, the more likely that being on Council is going to cost you in terms of friendships, and, if you run a business and are on Council, it may very well cost you in revenue.

2. It is the administrator's job to take the flack of the community. They are often treated like the scapegoats of the operation, by being the first one thrown under the bus when things go wrong, and being the last one getting the credit when things go right.  They are yelled at by the public, and treated like they are personally responsible for unpopular decisions. It is no wonder that this job is getting increasingly difficult to fill. People, it is not their job to take abuse from you. Mind your manners, administrators are there to help, and if you don't find your administrator particularly helpful, complain in the right way. Find out what the process is for complaints in your town and if you have one, follow that process. And if the decision doesn't go your way, find out what the appeal process is. Civilized. Kind. Effective.

3. Publishing your complaints on Facebook is the same thing as complaining to Council. Nope. You might hurt their feelings if they happen to read it, but negative comments on social media is a completely ineffective way to deal with any issue you might be having. All that does is create community division, make the writer look bad (especially when you cannot even spell it out correctly) amuse whatever readers may be interested in the drama of the day, and make your whole community look like no place anyone wants to come and spend money. If you want to give your complaint some traction, write a polite letter to Council outlining your complaint, ideally offering a solution and ask for a meeting time if necessary. This modern day 'tattling' has gotten way out of hand, and most often only represents a very narrow one-sided view of events. If you cannot do it out of respect for your Council do it out of respect for yourself.

4. People on Council  do not pay the same taxes you pay.  Most people do not have the slightest idea how their property taxes are calculated. Did you know that the municipality does not get to keep all of the property taxes you pay? Municipal taxes are limited to what is generated from the mill rate,  the rest is education tax. Many councils hate raising taxes to such a degree that they do not even charge the citizens half of what it  costs to provide services, relying instead on unsustainable revenue sources such as grants and cost sharing programs. Citizens need to understand that the people in the Council room make the best decisions they can to ensure that their community is sustainable given the revenue they have. Councils have been loath to raise taxes to such a degree that they often have nothing left in the kitty when the well-deserving group comes demanding the town pay for one thing or another. These are not evil people somehow different from the general population, these are your friends and neighbors who are tasked with the job of balancing the books when the need always outstrips the ability to pay. They pay the same taxes you pay, so you want to bet, nobody wants to be the one on Council when there needs to be a tax hike to keep the lights on.

5. Assuming that because you voted them in, you've done your bit as a community citizen. If all you did was vote,(you did right?) and you've never attended a public meeting, or even read the minutes, and the only time you engage with Council is when they make you mad, I think you can do a little better. The people that make up your Council were your friends and neighbors with about the same knowledge of community affairs as you had before they began their work for the community. More and more, Councils are required to engage with the people who live there in order to support the decisions they make. They are required to work with the public in order to access funding in many cases. Sad to say, that when public meetings are offered, they are mostly poorly attended. However, let someone start a nasty thread on a social media site, then everyone has an opinion, and that opinion is very public. It is important that we educate ourselves on the issues that are important to our communities. Attend the public meetings when they are offered. Read the documents that the community makes public, and make sure you know how your taxes are being spent. Informed decision making is the best way to deal with community issues.

6. Because you personally saw public works people when they were not moving during work hours, that means they never work and are certainly not worth the outrageous amounts of money we, as taxpayers pay them. Shut. Your. Mouth. I mean it too. If someone followed you around for 8 hours, someone might see you standing still for a minute or two. The only difference is that because we are tax payers we seem to think that we are their bosses. We are not. We may pay the taxes that give them wages, but we are not the boss. If you have a complaint about a public works employee, you do not get to harass them. You can complain though, and you should if you think a public works employee is doing something wrong. Do it the right way; start with going to see the administrator. Chances are, you will get a reasonable explanation. A recent trend I've noticed, is that even in ugly threads that cut down the entire operation, there is every now and then I someone expressing sincere gratitude for those wonderful public works employees who put in a ton of work when the snow slams us in, or when there is an emergency.  I notice it often only takes one little voice of reason to completely change the direction of a rant.

7. Complaining to a member of council or the administrator on the street, is the same thing as complaining to Town Council. Nope. An individual member of Council cannot make decisions on their own. You put them on the spot when you ask them to deal with an issue by complaining on the street and expecting them to deal with it or champion it  when Council meets again. Some Council members do follow up, but many of them do not, mostly because the complaints are pretty constant. That is why most Councils have a process in place that starts with the administrator.

8. Members of Council and Administration should attend community events to show they are engaged with the community. I love the ones that do, and I understand why some of them do not. Constant complaints is enough to make anyone not want to show their face in public, because some residents cannot resist the urge to poke at them when they get the chance, even in public, even in front of their spouses and children. Besides, because they did not attend YOUR event, does not mean they do not attend any.  If you would like a member of Council to attend your event, please invite them. And if they still don't attend, well by all means complain...using the appropriate channels as previously discussed.

Are all Councils, Administrators and Pubic Works employees made up of good people who are being badly treated by the public without cause? No. Some are incompetent buffoons and I feel bad for the communities that are saddled with them, but truly these are the rare ones, and their incompetence does not make it okay to abuse them. Instead, push for Council training. What I see happening most often, is that municipal government is accused of being incompetent when in reality the accuser is misinformed. Go talk to the people who are tasked with community decision not rely on one-sided gossip--if a story seems to lean too much in favor of one side or the other, it should be clear you are missing half the information regardless of the source.

It has been my experience that most people who took on these jobs did so because they care about our communities enough to subject themselves to abuse from people who used to be nice to them. As legislation changes, and more demands are put on this important sector, our municipal governments need the support of their community to navigate these changes.  Hold them accountable yes, ask questions, yes, and inform yourself before you take a side. Go to community meetings. You can be the change you want to see. You have to be.


Author: Solomon Matthewson Consulting


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